47 minutes, 1996, Hi8

“Southbound: a review of a searing new documentary by Doug Hawes-Davis”
Call of the Wild, Fall 1996
by Steve Weber

Great civilizations tend to flourish at the expense of the existing natural order. That seems to be why so many of them fall to ruin. Degradation of the landscape tends toward social unrest and its inevitable expansionist tendency. This is a familiar historical pattern. However, at no time in our known history has humankind possessed the means to grossly alter the nature of the entire planet…until now.

SOUTHBOUND, a documentary by Doug Hawes-Davis, addresses the issue of large-scale timber extraction and its new tool, the “Chipmill.” Although large-scale forest removal is nothing new, the chipmill and its attendant equipment have rendered the process quick and easy. Through the camera of Hawes-Davis, a varied group of people express their beliefs, concerns and views regarding the chipmill process. Interspersed scenes of clear-cut logging, its aftermath, and associated chipmill activities render a compelling vision of this socially complex issue. Short of viewer bias, Hawes-Davis seems to avoid the pitfalls associated with chronicling such an emotionally-charged issue. Whatever the personal bias, no serious viewer can remain untouched by this video’s numerous implications.

Perhaps, for those who will not have the dubious pleasure of viewing Southbound, a brief summary is in order. As timber resources begins to dwindle elsewhere, especially in the Pacific Northwest, large timber extraction enterprises have begun to view the Southeastern United States as the next source of supply. However, unlike in the past, the emphasis has shifted from timber production to raw wood-pulp production. This pulp, through chemical process, becomes paper products, chipboard type building materials and other associated substances.

The chipmill, a centrally located tree-grinding machine, is fed tons of whole trees which it proceeds to grind to pulp. Lopping machines, like huge week-shears on wheels, fell large trees with a single snip. The trees are then trimmed, loaded on trucks and sent to the chipmill on the river. The wood chips are then usually shipped to foreign ports for further processing. Within three years, all available timer resource in a two hundred square mile area surrounding the chipmill becomes depleted. The chipper; by then having paid for itself many times over, is torn apart and sold as scrap metal.

Meanwhile, the effects of this industrial process on the landscape become brutally evident. Erosion causes clear streams to become muddy rivulets. “Biological deserts” form as up to ninety percent of the native flora and fauna are destroyed. Small, long-standing family sawmills meet financial ruin, unable to compete with the large timber companies. Neighbor turns against neighbor as all grapple with the situation.

Inevitable questions concerning economic and ecological sustainability arise. Chipmill technology employs few and removes much. Local communities receive little in return for their local resource. Big companies make large profits, then vanish; leaving a much battered landscape behind. Some argue that the new technology makes for efficient use of timber resources. Others merely point to the aftermath of such extreme logging activities as mute testimony to the reality of the situation.

Certainly, there is no simple answer to the myriad questions arising from clear-cut/chipmill industrial timber removal. But whatever one’s personal beliefs may be, the time has come to face this perplexing issue and Southbound offers ample food for thought.